Making Progress?

I started climbing almost 40 years ago but for much of the last twenty years everything, including climbing, took a back seat to work. Whilst I have never stopped climbing, the standard at which I performed slipped from on-sighting E5 / 7b to HVS / 6b. However, my enthusiasm for climbing never dimmed and is still as strong as ever. Therefore, becoming unemployed last January is proving to be a blessing in disguise as it has created the oft wished for opportunity to devote more time to climbing. I am making the most of it!

In the last 15 months, with Gaynor and other willing companions, I have been trad climbing in the UK (North & South Wales, North Devon and Dartmoor, the Peak District, the Lake District, Northumberland and Scotland) and Jordan (Wadi Rum), sport climbing in Italy (Sicily, Campania, Puglia), France (Ailefroide) and Greece (Nafplio, Katafiki, Leonidio & Kyparissi) and bouldering in Italy (Varazze & Grand Sasso), France (Fontainebleau) and the UK (Northumberland and Dartmoor). Whilst I had a fantastic year there was no real focus to my climbing although I felt that I had started to regain much of the climbing fitness I had lost. On this trip I wanted to put this to the test. More specifically, had I got back to a level from where 3 months of intensive sport climbing would enable me, aged 55, to regain or even surpass the level at which I was climbing more than 20 years ago.

Just over one month into the holiday, have I made progress towards this goal? Perhaps, although it doesn’t feel like it as I have yet to summon up the courage to try a 7b. The major flaw in my plan is that at heart I am still a trad-climber not a sport climber. As a result I am struggling to move past the trad-climbing mentality of wanting to do everything on-sight, ground up without falling or resting on the rope. For me, there is a chasm between this and sport climbing where you practice a route until you are able to do it without rests to achieve the “redpoint”. To help me cross this chasm I have been trying to create my own rationale for why it exists.

On-sighting “Trono di Baphometh” (7a) at Statte

What I love about climbing is that it engages you intellectually, emotionally and physically.

The beauty of trad-climbing is that all three aspects are in balance. Sadly, with age, my enthusiasm for getting scared on bold trad climbs has waned a little, in this respect I am not as “emotionally” strong as I used to be. However, I still want to push myself climbing. As fear is perhaps the biggest emotion to deal with in climbing, probably the only way I will do this, other than at a climbing wall, is through sport climbing. In sport climbing the risk of a fall leading to serious injury or death is actually quite small but dealing with fear is still a key element. It is widely accepted that what usually holds people back in sport climbing is not a lack of strength but fear of falling and fear of failure. Largely through taking lots of falls at the climbing wall, I believe I have made good progress with combating my fear of falling. What I still need to be able to deal with much more effectively is the fear of failure.

As much as anything this probably comes down to my personal perception of success and failure. For me failure relates as much to how I am shaping up compared to my image of myself and what I should be able to do than to how my performance is viewed by others. I know I am never going to rival Adam Ondra or Alex Honnold but I do want to be able to view myself as being a competent climber. For me competence is a combination of being able to do something that is “reasonably difficult” gracefully and in good style.

Unfortunately for my sport climbing ambitions, I have this deeply ingrained belief that good style means climbing routes on-sight with no falls or rests. The success associated with getting to the top of a route in any other way is tarnished and therefore less satisfying. Intellectually, I know that this is slightly ridiculous and anachronistic. However, the fact remains that unless I can change my perception of success and failure, adopting a true sport climbing approach might result in me climbing routes with higher grades but finding the result fundamentally unrewarding.

This gives little incentive to break out of the zone I am currently in but I know, deep down, that this in itself would constitute a sort of failure and be massively self-defeating. Ultimately, I see striving to get better as a way of ensuring that I will be able to continue enjoying climbing for as long as possible in as many different places as possible. The rewards of which will far out way any short term disappointments caused by an increase in the proportion of routes on which I “fail”.

As an incentive to push myself harder, Gaynor and I have been keeping a record of the grades of the routes that we have done on this trip. It will be very interesting to see if this works and if the route statistics do show that I am making progress.

— Jon

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